Naming the Conjuncture
What is the nature of this crisis? It’s not just a passing series of events. What’s its history, where does it come from? We started to discuss it as the “neoliberal conjuncture.”
— Stuart Hall
We live in a world where captains get arrested for saving people’s lives on the sea; where a person downloading scientific articles faces thirty-five years in jail; where people risk charges for flying drones bringing contraceptives to those who otherwise couldn’t get them. Folks are getting in trouble for giving food to the poor, medicine to the sick, water to the thirsty, shelter to the homeless. At the same time, flying drones to kill people is praised as the state of the art of current warfare techniques; border policing and vigilantes willfully pushing back migrants like they were animals are encouraged; the fattest profit margins are achieved through the relentless enclosure of publicly funded science. Our heroines care, disobey, and they are pirates.
“Pirate care” is a concept that the sociologist Herbert Blumer (1954) would have called “sensitizing,” that is, a phenomenon that is still emerging. In our case, it is a constellation of processes that are shaking up the practices, institutions, and imaginaries of the politics of social reproduction.
While the processes that we define as “pirate care” can be very different, they share important commonalities that allow us to think them together: they are all practices developed in reaction to the profound changes introduced in the field of welfare by global neoliberal governance and they are willing to risk prosecution to uphold the right to wellbeing for all.
The Plural Crisis of Care
The monetary value of women’s unpaid care work globally for women aged 15 and over is at least $10.8 trillion annually – three times the size of the world’s tech industry.
— Clare Coffey et al., “Time to Care,” Oxfam Briefing Paper, 2020
The welfare state has become a dominant developmental horizon of the capitalist countries at least after the WWII. Through the system of taxation and public spending, the state took charge to partially remedy the most harmful effects of capitalism, by levelling some of the economic inequalities existing between the social classes through a form of indirect income. At the same time, a publicly funded and organized welfare infrastructure has been the core political horizon of socialist and communist countries too. Welfare is a model that assigns to the public sector the task of guaranteeing to all of its citizens those services that are indispensable for life, such as healthcare, education, a home, and social benefits for those unable to get an income. These rights have been framed by political commentators and perceived by public opinion as fundamental and as evidence of social accomplishment and civilizational progress. A vast array of institutions that organize contemporary social life, such as hospitals and care homes, kindergartens and schools, youth and leisure centers, public libraries and museums exist today as a result of struggles around welfare rights.
The welfare model of governance was not exempt from criticism however. Feminists, black, and disability movements, for instance, attacked paternalistic and discriminatory arrangements of services, rejecting those components of the welfare system that most involved coercion and control, while still insisting on publicly funded provisions of care.
Neoliberalism, arising in the 1970s as a reaction to the growing portion of social wealth taken by workers and their families through direct and indirect wages, framed the function of the state differently: instead of having to guarantee welfare, the role of the public is to reorganize every institution and area of life to make it adopt the appearance of a “market.” The belief of the neoliberals was that the market is the most efficient mechanism of allocation and consequently the best form of provision of social welfare too. Fortunately, not everyone agrees and neoliberalism has been widely criticized and opposed by social and political movements globally. During the past fifty years, however, it has continued to dominate the political horizon, leading to growing inequalities between rich and poor 01 and expanding neo-colonial extractivism in the poorest regions of the planet. Moreover, neoliberal governance has been blamed for repeatedly failing to confront the grave environmental catastrophe that we are now facing. As many feminist commentators have noted, climate change can be thought as one of multiple dimensions of the capitalist “crisis of care” that impacts the quality of life of billions of people on this planet.
Despite the fact that theorists of neoliberalism have often declared themselves in favor of extreme cuts to tax and public welfare systems, in practice their reforms have often achieved quite a different result. They served (and still serve) to justify not so much the dismantling of state interventions, but the advent of a different “role” of the public services: away from an ideal of collective wellbeing towards a system of workfare in which basic resources for life are administered as a tool of punishment of the poor, and of regulation and control imposed upon the most weak. The responsibility was shifted from the failings of the capitalist market to the individuals, blaming them for not being able to resolve on their own the problems that were still structural.
In fact, these “redundant” populations – that is, people not interesting enough for the markets neither as workforce nor as consumers – are the new target groups of punitive neoliberalism. People who are in most need of care (unemployed, precarious, working poor, ex-prisoners, elderly and young, sick and disabled, minorities and asylum seekers … ) are today immersed in the most bureaucratic environments, and subjected to endless processes of evaluation, made to prove again and again both their potential value (for markets) and their moral character for accessing basic rights as rewards.
The reorganization of welfare has led to a re-conservatization of societies. The church and other faith-based organizations were allowed to become providers of services in what has come to be known as the “charity-industrial complex,” while the family was asked to assume its role as the primary place of care and responsibility for dependents. The well-known consequence of this is that an increased portion of the necessary reproductive labor is expected to be performed for free and in large part to fall on women’s shoulders, stiffening reactionary gender roles and hierarchies.
While introducing punitive market dependence for social reproduction in welfare states, neoliberalism collapsed the prospects of development for postcolonial and socialist societies across the world, leading a growing global population to seek ways to flee misery, hide from war, and find a better future in more affluent nations. This has led to a hardening of border controls and criminalization of migrant fluxes. As we approach the conditions of runaway climate change, the lives of the global surplus populations are so deprecated that the cheapest way to deal with migration has proven to suppress them by military means.
Caring as Disobedience
The crime-wave of being too nice to the wrong people.
— Bruce Sterling
Caring labour is aimed at maintaining or augmenting another person’s freedom.
— David Graeber
We have thus sketched some of the historic developments that allow us to understand the necessity behind the emergence of practices that we have named “pirate care.” The term condenses two processes that are particularly visible at present. On the one hand, basic care provisions that were previously considered cornerstones of social life are now being pushed towards illegality, as a consequence of geopolitical reordering and the marketization of social services. At the same time new, often technologically-enabled care networks are emerging in opposition to this drive toward illegality and marginalization.
Against the background of institutionalized negligence, a growing wave of mobilizations and resistance around care can be witnessed addressing a number of fundamental needs: the recent Docs Not Cops campaign in the UK, with doctors refusing to carry out documents checks on migrant patients; migrant-rescue boats (such as those operated by Sea-Watch) that defy the criminalization of NGOs active in the Mediterranean; the growing resistance to homelessness via the reappropriation of houses left empty by speculators (like the PAH in Spain); the defiance of legislation making homelessness illegal (such as Hungary’s reform of October 2018), or municipal decrees criminalizing helping out in public space (e.g. Food Not Bombs’ volunteers arrested in 2017).
In Greece, a growing number of grassroots clinics set up by the Solidarity Movement have responded to the draconian cuts to public services by providing medical attention to those without a private insurance. In Italy, precarious parents without recourse to public childcare are organizing their own pirate kindergartens. In Spain, the feminist collective GynePunk developed a toolkit for gynecological self-diagnosis, to allow all those excluded from reproductive health services (such as trans women, drug users or sex workers) to perform basic checks on their own bodies. Meanwhile, the collective Women on Waves has been providing safe contraceptive and abortion options to women in countries where these are not available, at times using boats harbored in international waters, like veritable care pirates.
We felt the need to map and think these practices of pirate care together, because we feel they are opening up a potent political imaginary for the present times, although they are a continuation of long-standing practices of solidarity and mutual aid. Our project also attempts to offer them some degree of protection by means of visibility. These initiatives are frequently acting in expressed non-compliance with laws, regulations, and executive orders that impose exclusions along the lines of class, gender, race, or territory. They are not shying away from the risk of persecution in providing unconditional solidarity to those who are the most exploited, discriminated against, and condemned to the status of surplus population. We also wish to push institutions, including cultural institutions, to find ways of supporting, rather than stifling, such bottom-up collective care provisions.
We are interested in learning from and together with practitioners that share a pirate care approach, that is, from and with those practitioners who mix ethical concerns for the wellbeing of all – and especially of the most oppressed groups – with an experimentation with tools and techniques for collective organizing. We noticed that too many cultural and academic spaces often arrange discussions around a “single issue.” Instead, we wanted to provide a space for some of these conversations to take place following a more transversal approach to social reproduction.
Composing a Syllabus
We have to consciously study how to be tender with each other until it becomes a habit.
— Audre Lorde
The syllabus is the manifesto of the twenty-first century.
To connect various practices of pirate care and to bring their analysis and organizing experience to closer attention of the public, we have decided to explore and present them through the angle of radical pedagogy and to develop together with practitioners a syllabus on pirate care.
We found our inspiration in the recent phenomenon of the #syllabi that started to appear around 2014, when educators connected with social justice movements had begun using the hashtag as a means to gather teaching resources to respond to a number of violent events: the #FergusonSyllabus addressed the racist police killing of Michael Brown; the Syllabus on Gaming and Feminism by The New Inquiry was a reaction to the misogynist attacks of some parts of the gamer community to Zoë Quinn, Brianna Wu, and Anita Sarkeesian (the so-called #gamergate). Shortly after, the Trump 101 and Trump 2.0 syllabi were compiled to help make sense of the political implications of his election to presidency, while the #StandingRockSyllabus provided a powerful tool for communicating the stakes of the largest gathering of Native Americans in the last 100 years, against the ecological devastation wrought by the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Many more online syllabi have been circulating since, both as crowdsourced or single-authored documents responding to various political crises around the world with a call for a renewed political pedagogy, both within and outside official educational venues. This phenomenon has been an important source of inspiration for our work, because it helped us bring into focus the idea that many of the big societal issues we are confronting need to be addressed through pedagogical processes that involve situated commitments and long temporalities. There is a shared social need to build opportunities for shared political analysis of the conjunctures we inhabit and to reflect on our current conditions.
In November 2019 we organized a writing retreat hosted by Drugo More (Rijeka, HR), to create the first version of a Pirate Care Syllabus. It was drafted together with Laura Benítez Valero, Emina Bužinkić, Rasmus Fleischer, Maddalena Fragnito, Mary Maggic, Iva Marčetić, two members of the Power Makes Us Sick collective, Zoe Romano, Ivory Tuesday, and Ana Vilenica. These contributors are active in feminist approaches to reproductive healthcare, autonomous mental health support, trans health and well-being, free access to knowledge, housing struggles, collective childcare, migrant solidarity, community safety, and anti-racist organizing.
The Pirate Care Syllabus is not a crowdsourced document emerging from a social movement, but, more modestly, a collaboratively created resource that brings together those texts and documents that practitioners found most useful for activating a collective learning process about the crisis they have responded to in their organizing. It’s not the, but a Pirate Care Syllabus, and a document that will keep evolving during our residency in Vienna. By making it shareable and re-mixable document, we hope that further cross-pollination across practices will be generated that might, in turn, strengthen each other.
On the technological side, developing tools and workflows for syllabus is an extension of our work on the Memory of the World shadow library. As amateur librarians, we want to provide universal access to a meticulously maintained catalogue of digital texts, making available those that are behind paywalls or are not digitized yet. (It is worth noting that shadow libraries themselves are a pirate care practice: in contravention of the copyright regulation, doing what public libraries are not allowed to do.) With the tools and workflows for the syllabus, we want to offer a technological framework and pedagogical process that can allow others to activate these resources for their own learning processes and also to adapt them to their own conditions. We want the syllabi to be easily preserved – so they include digitized documents relevant to the actions of specific struggles – and to come integrated with well-maintained and catalogued collections of reading materials.
To achieve this, we have made certain technological choices. In our framework, a syllabus is built from plaintext documents that are written in a very simple and human-readable Markdown markup language, rendered into a static HTML website that doesn’t require a resource-intensive and easily breakable database system, and which keeps its files on a git version control system that allows collaborative writing and easy forking to create new versions. Such a syllabus can then be equally hosted on an internet server and used/shared offline from a USB stick, while still preserving the internal links between the documents and the links to the texts in the accompanying searchable resource collection.
We are thinking about syllabi as forms of more differentiated manifestos to survive the perilous future that is in the making. While the most rewarding aspects of care are being privatized for the few, and its most oppressive components, such as surveillance, conformity and coercion, are being technologically redistributed for the many, we will need to educate ourselves in the knowledges that can help us to make care practices a distributed insurgent common instead.